What is fast fashion and why is it a problem?

Alex Crumbie explores the growing concern about the social and environmental impacts of the fast fashion clothing industry and sets out what's wrong with fast fashion.

Fast fashion is ‘fast’ in a number of senses: the changes in fashion are fast, the rate of production is fast; the customer’s decision to purchase is fast; delivery is fast; and garments are worn fast – usually only a few times before being discarded.

The rise of fast fashion has had devastating consequences, from its reliance on plastic fabrics and its enormous carbon footprint to its erosion of workers’ rights.

In this article we explain what we mean when we say ‘fast fashion’ and why it is so bad for people and the planet. 

What is fast fashion?

In the last few decades, we have seen fashion trends changing more and more quickly. Pressures on workers to produce more and at lower prices have grown alongside pressures on consumers to turn to the newest trends. 

Fast changing trends

At its heart, the fast fashion business model relies on consumers endlessly buying more clothes. Brands tempt consumers by offering ultra-cheap garments (for example, Missguided’s £1 bikini) and ever-changing new ranges. At the time of writing, fast fashion brand Shein featured 21,139 clothes under the ‘New in’ section of its website. 

Fashion brands have long used new styles and lower prices to attract customers, but previously brands would plan new ranges many months, even years, in advance. The pace of change was relatively slow and there were fewer products on offer. In comparison, fast fashion is focused on responding to ever-changing consumer tastes as quickly as possible.

For example, in the BBC’s ‘Breaking Fashion’ show we see Manchester-based fast fashion company, In the Style, reproducing a bodysuit worn by Kylie Jenner. The company manages to have the piece designed, manufactured and on sale within 10 days of the piece first being worn publicly by the celebrity.

The rise of fast fashion is intertwined with social media and celebrity/influencer culture. A celebrity posts a photo wearing a new outfit, and their followers want it, so fast fashion brands rush to be the first to provide it. Fast fashion brands often target young people - so called Gen Zs -, who have been brought up amongst social media and influencer culture. In fact, a recent survey found that almost 75% of 18-24 year olds believe influencers can be held somewhat accountable for the rise in disposable fashion.

Of course, the flow of causality is not that simple: fast fashion brands are not simply reacting to consumer demand, they are also creating it. But the essential point is that these brands operate on the basis of constantly producing new lines of clothes to meet the insatiable and ever-changing consumer demand for all things new.

Man sewing material on sewing machine

Fast production

Faster changing trends means that producers are under pressure to manufacture clothes more and more rapidly. Factories are expected to produce new lines with only a couple of month’s notice, meaning that their workload - and therefore the amount of employment they can offer to workers - is unpredictable and insecure.

The drive to produce garments rapidly has led many UK fast fashion companies to reshore clothing production to the UK, where previously almost all clothing brands sourced from less-economically developed countries such as Bangladesh or Vietnam.

Leicester has become a central hub for clothing production and many of the scandals associated with workers’ rights in the UK have been found in factories in the city.

The exploitation of workers in fast fashion supply chains is partly the result of brands pressuring suppliers to produce clothes as cheaply and quickly as possible. We talk about this more below.

Fast sale and delivery

The low-cost of fast fashion items encourages fast sale. The average person in the UK buys 60% more clothing today than in 2000. We buy more clothes per person in the UK than in any other country in Europe, and our addiction has grown - with online searches for ‘cheap clothes’ increasing 46.3% during the first coronavirus lockdown. 

Even if you are out-of-pocket you can buy items using Klarna and other easy credit services. Its post-purchase payment options allow you to defer paying for your garment for 14 to 30 days, much like a payday loan.

Most companies also offer cheap deals for quick delivery. At the time of writing, Boohoo offered unlimited next-day delivery for one year for just £7.99.

Fast use

It’s estimated that the average item of clothing is worn just 14 times, and in 2019 The Guardian reported that one in three young women considered an item worn just once or twice to be old.

Much modern clothing is not made to last. Due to super-fast production, designs are generally not well stress-tested before sale, and cheap synthetic fabrics are used in order to keep costs low. Much of it will end up in landfill after only being worn a handful of times.

Dirt water from pipe going into body of water

The problems with fast fashion 

What are the environmental problems with fast fashion?

The endless creation of new clothes comes with a heavy environmental price. Every year the sector requires 93 billion cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people, and is responsible for around 20% of industrial water pollution as a result of textile treatment and dyeing.

There are also numerous problems with the materials and processes used. For example, cotton production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. 

The industry also has a heavy carbon footprint, which is responsible for up to 10% of total global carbon emissions, and estimated to increase by 50% by 2030.

The above problems affect the clothing sector more broadly, but one issue is particularly endemic to fast fashion: plastic.

How much plastic do clothes contain?

The rise of fast fashion has been heavily dependent on synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane, which are made from heavily processed petrochemicals (fossil fuels). These materials are cheap to produce – polyester, for example, costs half as much per kilo as cotton – and therefore allow brands to keep prices low, though with a high environmental price-tag.

Polyester is the most widely used of these synthetic fibres and is now found in over half of all textiles produced. It is generally produced from polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET, a type of plastic derived from crude oil and natural gas – also used to make items such as plastic bottles.

The ubiquitousness of plastic in clothing means that the textile sector accounts for 15% of total plastic use; the only sectors that use more are construction and packaging. Many brands are making a song and dance about using recycled plastics for their clothes, but a recent report by the RSA found that the actual level of recycled content was pitifully low. Across four major online fast fashion brands, the use of recycled fabrics was a mere 4%.

Our analysis of Shein’s website found its recycled content was even lower, at only 0.5%, despite the brand claiming, “When selecting materials, we do our best to source recycled fabric, such as recycled polyester.”

Recycling plastics where possible has some benefits, but it does nothing to address the problem of microfibres – the miniscule bits of fabric that are released when clothes are worn, washed, or disposed of, that find their way into our bodies and the natural world. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, clothes release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.

These fibres have been found almost everywhere: from the summit of Mount Everest to the placentas of unborn babies. We still do not know the effects they may have.

How much waste does the clothing industry cause?

The industry is also responsible for enormous amounts of textile waste. The amount of textiles being produced globally per person has more than doubled from 5.9kg to 13kg over the period 1975-2018. 

Many of the clothes bought are thrown away after being worn just a handful of times: the industry produces an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste annually, much of which is burnt or finds its way to landfill, while less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments. 

Some of this waste consists of items that never even reached the consumer – clothing lines that have become outdated and so are destroyed instead of sold.

Garment workers protest in Bangladesh
Garment workers protest in Bangladesh - Image by Clean Clothes Campaign

Why is it bad for workers?

In order to offer clothes at ultra low prices, fast fashion brands need their costs to be low. One of the main ways of doing this is to drive down the wages of garment workers in the supply chain. 

For years, brands have ‘chased the cheap needle’ around the world, seeking countries with the lowest labour standards so that garment workers can be easily exploited. In recent years, many UK fast fashion brands have found the cheap needle closer to home, often in quasi-legal factories in cities such as Leicester.

In the UK, Boohoo has become somewhat the symbol of fast fashion’s worker exploitation problem. Numerous exposés have shown that while the pockets of Boohoo’s directors are bursting at the seams, the people who actually stitch the seams of its clothing are paid a pittance, with some found to have been paid under half the minimum wage.

The Levitt report, which looked in depth at Boohoo’s Leicester supply chain, found that “The allegations of unacceptable working conditions and underpayment of workers are not only well-founded but are substantially true.” Levitt also claimed that these problems were endemic to the system and likely found across Boohoo’s supply chain.

Worker exploitation is an essential part of the fast fashion model. If an item is very cheap, chances are that the person who produced it was paid little. 

Which are the leading fast fashion brands?

It is important to note that most of the fashion sector has become ‘faster’ in recent years. As such, even the more mainstream, established brands will be ‘fast’ to some extent. However, there are some brands that stand out as much faster than the rest:

If a brand is offering vast numbers of ‘new in’ clothes (usually thousands of new items every day) and its products are super cheap, then it is a fast fashion brand.

What can you do about fast fashion?

  1. Buy consciously and look for ethical brands
  2. Buy second hand or repair what you already have.
  3. Join a fast fashion campaign, such as Fashion Revolution or the Clean Clothes campaign.
  4. Follow our 10 tips to ditch fast fashion.
  5. Maybe most importantly, buy less clothing.